Me and Sydney, we've got a thing going on

So what's the attraction, the people? Perhaps it's the weather? Or the fabulous food, served in stylish restaurants? You can't analyse true love, says Andrew Tuck, especially when you're luxuriating in a so-hip-it-hurts hotel

I've had one-night stands. You know the kind - you wake up hung-over and slink out the door, knowing that you'll never be back around here again (grateful for the experience, mind). Then there have been the weekend affairs, even intimate week-long love fests - at first you think it is the real thing, but when it is time to go, well, you're glad to be returning to your own bed. Then there are the ones that hook you. Thoughts of the good times creep into your mind at inappropriate moments; you wonder when you'll be reunited. Some cities really are just so damned sexy, captivating.

I've had one-night stands. You know the kind - you wake up hung-over and slink out the door, knowing that you'll never be back around here again (grateful for the experience, mind). Then there have been the weekend affairs, even intimate week-long love fests - at first you think it is the real thing, but when it is time to go, well, you're glad to be returning to your own bed. Then there are the ones that hook you. Thoughts of the good times creep into your mind at inappropriate moments; you wonder when you'll be reunited. Some cities really are just so damned sexy, captivating.

And I have to confess, me and Sydney have got a bit of a thing going on. I have been there in the heat of summer, when the sun bleaches everything you dare wince at. I have been there for the party-packed Mardi Gras. And for another summer when the sky remained a drab grey and rain ensured my trunks remained in the suitcase (but I still had a hoot). I have been to the city in spring and in autumn. And every time I have thought: this is the one for me. Perhaps it's the extraordinary setting around the clear waters of the natural harbour. Or its compactness: a sandy beach is never more than a short cab ride away. Or maybe it's the people, or the weather. Or the breakfast at Bills.

Breakfast at Bills (or rather, "bills" with an unassuming lower-case "b") is a Sydney institution. And chef-owner Bill Grainger is something of a star about town with several sumptuous recipe books to his name. His fame rests on simple recipes executed to perfection: think pancakes or roasted muesli with yoghurt and fruit. And a must in Sydney: strong coffee served in short glasses.

So, even though my mission was to find the hip and the new, in everything from restaurants to hotels, I planned my attack on the city from Bills, an old favourite. But it's certainly hip. And after a day on a plane, it seemed nothing short of heaven. It may have been the tail-end of the Australian winter, but sun was streaming in through the windows and everyone just looked so damned attractive and relaxed.

But Bills doesn't have a harbour view, and if there's one thing that obsesses Sydneysiders, it's the sea, or rather seeing the sea. They pay huge premiums for apartments overlooking the water. They love to fly across it (there are seaplanes from Catalina Bay that will skim you north to the cute Cottage Point restaurant); they walk over it (by making the daring Harbour Bridge climb); they sail on it at the drop of a skipper's cap (you can easily hire a yacht and crew for a harbour cruise). And it doesn't take long before you are drawn into this obsession. You find yourself tracking down ocean-front restaurants, bars with those harbour views - and, of course, worrying about bagging the table with the ultimate vista.

Two new restaurants that offer not just dining worth loosening your belt for, but also peerless ocean views are Moorish and Icebergs, both in Bondi, an area enjoying a renaissance in the style stakes. Moorish is tucked away at the quieter north end of the beach - when we visited the paint had hardly dried. It's the latest venture for chef Luke Mangan (who runs the acclaimed Salt and Bistro Lulu). As the name suggests, the food is along a Spanish and North African theme. But it was the sea, being whipped up like a frothy coffee in the evening wind, that captivated us. As we tucked into our pear salads and barramundi, we watched the dog-walkers, joggers and skateboarders pass in front of us, oblivious to our voyeuristic stares. By the time we left, the wind was bitter but we still had to walk down to the beach and just stare at the crashing waves. Well, we were a bit drunk.

The next night we headed down to Bondi again, this time to check out the cool, and even cooler-named, Icebergs. At the opposite end of the beach to Moorish, the restaurant and bar opened last December and has been designed to make sure that every diner has a spectacular snapshot of the bay.

The restaurant takes its name from the Icebergs swimming club which has been in Bondi since 1929 and is still housed on the lower floors of the same building. It got its moniker because of its members' passion for winter swims in the tidal pool, also on the same site.

The revamped upper floors display everything that Australian restaurateurs do well: stylish drinks (a superlative wine list, dazzling cocktails); even better food (Livornese fish stew, roast quails, polenta chips with sea salt and sour cream), nifty interior design and what, at the risk of sounding pretentious, you might call a "democratic atmosphere" - you see young people in jeans and trainers, older diners in designer togs, but everyone just seems to be getting on with having a good time. And those panoramic seascapes are awesome - Icebergs could melt the world's most world-weary traveller.

Still hungry? Other Sydney hotspots include Wildfire, one of several new bars and restaurants housed in the revamped Overseas Passenger Terminal in the heart of the city, just beside Circular Quay. Wildfire is a meat-eaters' fantasy. Herds of cows must be slaughtered in this establishment's name every day. Waiters bring whole joints, still on their spits, to your table and carve away until your plate resembles a slaughterhouse. Even mid-week, the joint was jumping with city boys and girls desperate to get their teeth into some flesh. I went for the seafood platter - it came heaving with more varieties of ocean wildlife than I knew existed (had they raided the city's aquarium?). At night you look out the window at the floodlit Opera House and the ferries coming into the nearby terminal.

In the still hip, but not exactly new category, you should also check out Longrain in Surry Hills for great Thai food. Housed in an old warehouse, there are three vast communal tables, plus a lounge bar where you can get snacks. Good cocktails, too. Then try Via Abercrombie in the CBD for some of the best sandwiches in the world - even though it is found down a sunless alley, there is a long queue of office workers at its door each lunchtime.

Then there is the restaurant with perhaps the most celebrated setting in Sydney: Bennelong in the Opera House. Or as it is now called in honour of its chef, Guillaume at Bennelong. Guillaume Brahimi serves Australian-French food and is regarded as a big fish round here (perhaps that's why his last establishment was called Pond). It is a thrill to sit in this Modernist interior, under one of the ribbed arches of Joern Utzon's celebrated building. A view? Of course - you see the Botanic Gardens, the Harbour Bridge, the ships on the harbour.

A final dining tip is the small but perfectly formed Base, which in many ways typifies why Sydney dining is so good. A modest-looking joint, it serves thin-crust pizzas complemented by a succinct list of dishes such as stuffed squid. Prices are low in comparison with London, but everything is done with panache. How they produce such tasty food with such a small kitchen is mystifying. But in Sydney you cannot run a sloppy joint and survive - customers know and care too much about what they eat.

The cocktail revolution swept through Sydney a long time ago, and you are never far from a mean Martini. Although you should be careful how drunk you get at the new Moogbar in Surry Hills, as you could go wild and order the L'amex Noir, a cocktail that costs an unforgivable 2,003 Australian dollars. And then you might want to check into the bar's one-suite hotel - although at least that only costs A$1,500 a night.

Like you, I was anticipating Moogbar to be a bit naff, but it can't stop itself coming over all Sydney. It is situated in a terraced house, where you can take your drinks on the verandah or in the gloriously coloured bar. Fun, fashiony, it's also friendly and slickly run. It felt like being a guest at someone's house party.

For a more refined cocktail experience, you find yourself taking the lift to the Horizons Bar on the 36th Floor of the Shangri-La hotel. Now the décor may be dreary, but it has an old-fashioned elegance. And I know this is becoming a bit of a theme, but make sure you nab one of the window seats for views across the city.

And if you want to stay in a five-star joint (and don't we all), then the Shangri-La is a sensible choice. It's the antithesis - in a nice way - of the so-hip-it-hurts school of hotel design. It's charming, it's traditional. You don't pick over a few slices of star fruit at breakfast; you make the most of the omelette chef's skills. The rooms are comfortable, not minimalist statements. And views, have they got views.

For that designer experience, you should check out the W hotel. Housed in an old "finger wharf" (ie it juts out in to the water like, er, a finger), it has a vast cocktail lounge, gym, pool, and rooms that offer the crispest sheets, big bright bathrooms with lots of Aveda products and more bar treats than your local deli could muster. It's one of those places that makes you think, why can't my home be like this? The only odd thing is that the wharf is also home to a luxury apartment development and several other businesses, so whenever you go to the reception you feel as though you are standing in the middle of Knightsbridge.

There are cheaper options. We also stayed at the new boutique hotel attached to Sydney's most famous fish restaurant, Doyles. It's away from the main action (12km from the centre) at Watson's Bay. The Doyles Palace Hotel is, however, surprisingly stylish: rooms are a symphony of cream and white, bathrooms all power showers and white tiles - and, in our room, the bedroom and bathroom were divided by a giant window, so you could chat to your other half while they bathed and you loafed on the bed - and also make sure that they were washing behind their ears (there was a blind in case bashfulness set in). The only downer was the meagre breakfast.

Equally stylish was our stay at a sweet guesthouse in Darlinghurst. The Chelsea is in an old house with a pretty Italian-style garden, complete with a spluttering gargoyle fountain. The rooms are large and decorated with a mix of old (marble fireplaces, the odd antique) and new (sisal flooring, modern en-suite bathrooms). You have communal breakfast. Here the only negative is that you feel guilty falling home the worse for wear at three in the morning - will you wake up the whole house?

But it wasn't all eating, drinking and stylish hotels. Oh no, we also went shopping. Sydney is packed with innovative individual stores. Now, although some consider it a touch too middle-class for comfort, Woollahra displays this take on retail at its best. You should take time out at Jones the Grocer, a deli-cum-café. Sit on one of the Bauhaus chairs at the communal dining table and peruse a copy of Space magazine to find out how much it would cost to move here. Then fuel up with a poached-salmon sandwich and perhaps one of their giant muffins. You should also drop in at Arte Flowers, a florist that sells tableware and, like so many shops in Sydney, serves tea and cakes. Then there's Orson & Blake for home and garden accessories ... It's safe to say you'll be needing a big suitcase.

At the end of my week in Sydney, I was impressed how much had changed in the couple of years since I was last here. Like any other dynamic city, some once hot places had fallen off the radar and new ones had appeared. I was also irked at how many things I hadn't managed to see and do. Oh well, I guess me and Sydney will be seeing each other again. It's a love thing.

The Facts

Getting there

Andrew Tuck travelled with Malaysia Airlines, (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlineseurope.co.uk) and Travelmood (08700 664 556; www.travelmood.com). Packages to Australia via Malaysia start at £1,000 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and five-star accommodation. For general information contact the Australian Tourist Commission (0906 8633 235, calls cost 60p per minute; www.australia.com).

Where to be seen

Eating ...

Base (00 61 2 9331 0008; www.baserestaurant.com.au)

1/31 Challis Avenue, Potts Point

Bills (00 61 2 9360 9631) 433 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst

Guillaume at Bennelong (00 61 2 9241 1999; www.guillaume atbennelong.com.au)

Sydney Opera House

Bennelong Point

Icebergs (00 61 2 9365 9000: www.idrb.com)

One Notts Avenue

Bondi Beach

Longrain (00 61 2 9280 2888) 85 Commonwealth Street,

Surry Hills

Moorish (00 61 2 9300 9511; www.moorishrestaurant.com.au)

118-120 Ramsgate Avenue,

North Bondi

Via Abercrombie (00 61 2 9251 0000)

1 Abercrombie Lane, CBD

Wildfire (00 61 2 8273 1277; www.wildfiresydney.com) Overseas Passenger Terminal, West Circular Quay, The Rocks

Drinking ...

Moogbar (00 61 2 9331 3602)

413 Bourke Street, Surry Hills

Horizons at Shangri-La

(00 61 2 9250 6000; www.shangri-la.com)

176 Cumberland Street,

The Rocks

Shopping ...

Arte Flowers (00 61 2 9328 0402) 112 Queen Street, Woollahra

Jones the Grocer (00 61 2 9362 1222; www.jonesthegrocer.com.au) 68 Moncur Street, Woollahra

Orson & Blake, 83-85 Queen Street, Woollahra (00 61 2 8399 2525)

Sleeping ...

The Chelsea (00 61 2 9380 5994; www.chelsea.citysearch.com.au 49 Womerah Avenue, Darlinghurst

Doyle's Palace Hotel (00 61 2 9337 5444; www.doyles.com.au)

Military Road, Watson's Bay

Shangri-La (00 61 2 9250 6000; www.shangri-la.com)

176 Cumberland Street,

The Rocks

W (00 61 2 9331 9000; www.starwood.com/hotels) The Wharf at Woolloomooloo, Woolloomooloo

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